The Iowa State Fair: A top Iowa attraction that belongs on your bucket list

The Sky Glider has been a fixture at the Iowa State Fairgrounds since 1975.
The Sky Glider has been a fixture at the Iowa State Fairgrounds since 1975. | Source

If you're looking for things to do in Iowa, it doesn't get any bigger or better than the Iowa State Fair. The annual celebration of Iowa agriculture and industry, a state tradition since 1854, has earned its reputation as America's classic state fair. The fair was immortalized in a novel by Phil Stong, has inspired three motion pictures and a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, and is the only Iowa entry in Patricia Schultz's best-selling travel book, 1,000 Places to See Before You Die. Indeed, it deserves a place on your bucket list.

For 11 days each August, more than one million people descend upon the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines to be entertained and amused. They attend performances – many for free – of popular local and national music acts. They watch crazy competitions like the hog-calling and husband-calling contests, they marvel at half-ton pumpkins and one-and-a-half-ton bulls, and they dutifully file past the infamous "butter cow" and snap a few photos. When they're hungry, they have more than 60 kinds of food on a stick to choose from, including artery-clogging options like fried butter and deep-fried Twinkies.

The Iowa State Fair is much more than a collection of agricultural oddities and unwholesome food, however. It's an up-close look at the heart of the heartland. It's about the 4-H kid proudly showing her first bottle-fed heifer, the city kid petting an hours-old foal, the amateur pastry chef winning a coveted blue ribbon for his blueberry pie. It's about fun family memories captured in sepia in souvenir old-time photos. It's about the Iowa boys who met their future brides on the midway, much like the young couple in State Fair. It's a celebration of the state and its heritage, and of the hard-working people who make Iowa a great place to live. It's about good, old-fashioned American fun.


The midway features more than 30 attractions, including the famous double ferris wheel and 20 kid-friendly rides and attractions.
The midway features more than 30 attractions, including the famous double ferris wheel and 20 kid-friendly rides and attractions. | Source


A brief history of the Iowa State Fair

The Agriculture Building was added in 1904.
The Agriculture Building was added in 1904. | Source
Heritage Village features wood frame buildings that date to the nineteenth century.
Heritage Village features wood frame buildings that date to the nineteenth century. | Source

The first state fair was held in Fairfield, Iowa, for three days in October, 1854. Fairfield hosted the fair again the next year, but it moved to a new community every two years thereafter. The fair moved permanently to Des Moines, the state capital, in 1878 and relocated to its current home on Des Moines' east side in 1886.

The Iowa State Fairgrounds comprise 445 acres, including 160 acres of campgrounds. Many of the buildings on the grounds date to the early twentieth century and are steel frame structures covered in red brick. Other buildings are even older, including a number of single-story wood frame buildings that were part of the original construction or were moved from elsewhere in Iowa. The fairgrounds were listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987.

The record for attendance at the Iowa State Fair was set in 2015, at 1,117,398 over the 11 day period. The 2015 fair saw total attendance pass the one million mark for the twelfth time.


A flower show underway inside the Agriculture Building.
A flower show underway inside the Agriculture Building. | Source


Things to do and see at the Iowa State Fair

Lambs ready to be shown.
Lambs ready to be shown. | Source
Prize-winning flowers on display.
Prize-winning flowers on display. | Source

A first-time visitor to the fair can be overwhelmed by the seemingly endless amount of things to see and do. Go in with a plan. Check the daily schedule on-line to see the dozens of offerings each day, from cooking classes to dog shows to craft demonstrations. Note the time and location of the ones you don't want to miss. If that much advance planning isn't your thing, at least pick up a daily program and map at the gate and spend a few minutes perusing it when you first arrive to get your bearings.

In between programs, it's time to explore. Wander though the livestock barns. Check out the hundreds of exhibitors inside the Varied Industries Building (a great place to find air conditioning on a hot day) and the 4-H Exhibit Hall. Stop to watch an artisan demonstration in Heritage Village and shop the craft booths. You never know what you'll happen upon that will pique your interest. And make sure not to miss these great state fair attractions:


1. The Butter Cow

Crowding around for a look in 2011.
Crowding around for a look in 2011. | Source
The 2009 Butter Cow
The 2009 Butter Cow | Source
Abraham Lincoln was the subject of the 2013 companion sculpture.
Abraham Lincoln was the subject of the 2013 companion sculpture. | Source

An Iowa State Fair institution since 1911, the butter cow is a life-size replica of a dairy cow sculpted from 600 pounds of butter molded over a wood and metal frame. Sound weird? Even weirder are the companion sculptures on display with the cow that also are created from butter. Past years' companion sculptures have included such random, non-dairy-related subjects as Tiger Woods, Harry Potter, and the Harley Davidson motorcycle. You'll find the Butter Cow in the Agriculture Building behind the throngs of people lined up for a look inside the cooler where it's on display.

Fun facts about the Butter Cow:

  • There have been only five sculptors in the 103 year history of the Butter Cow.
  • The current sculptor is Sarah Pratt, who took over in 2006 when Norma "Duffy" Lyon retired after 46 years. Pratt served as apprentice to Lyon for 15 years.
  • Lyon, who took over as sculptor in 1960, was the first woman Butter Cow sculptor.
  • Lyon's uncle was Phil Stong, who wrote the novel State Fair.
  • The butter from the cow is frozen and stored after the fair and reused 3 or 4 more times.
  • The Butter Cow could provide spread for 19,200 slices of toast.
  • In 2013, the butter cow was vandalized overnight by an animal rights group. After members of the group doused the cow with fake blood, the sculptor was called in to repair it and the display opened as usual at 9:00 a.m. the next morning.


One of the biggest draws is the huge selection of fair food.
One of the biggest draws is the huge selection of fair food. | Source

2. Fair fare

The Butter Cow isn't for eating, but you can get fried butter at the Iowa State Fair. It's just one of more than 70 fair foods served on a stick, with even more unstuck options. The fair's 200 food stands serve such favorites as corn dogs, turkey legs, and pork chops, which are wolfed down at a rate of over 5,000 chops a day. There are even some healthy options, like salad on a stick, for those watching their waistlines.

The "hot beef sundae" at the Cattlemen's Beef Quarters is hot beef and gravy over a scoop of mashed potatoes and a cherry (tomato) on top.
The "hot beef sundae" at the Cattlemen's Beef Quarters is hot beef and gravy over a scoop of mashed potatoes and a cherry (tomato) on top. | Source

New selections are added every year to the eager anticipation of fair food aficionados. Among the new offerings for 2016 are Ice Cream Nachos, Loaded Taters on a Stick, and Funnel Bacon on a Stick.

An old favorite not to be missed is the Hot Beef Sundae (right).

Healthy food options at the Iowa State Fair.


Lining up for an artery-clogging double bacon corn dog, new to the fair in 2012.
Lining up for an artery-clogging double bacon corn dog, new to the fair in 2012. | Source

3. Large animals and vegetables

The champion bull of the 2011 fair.
The champion bull of the 2011 fair. | Source
The second place entry in the 2011 big pumpkin class, at 1,163 pounds.
The second place entry in the 2011 big pumpkin class, at 1,163 pounds. | Source

Of the tens of thousands of animal and vegetables entries, the most impressive are those competing in the jumbo and giant categories. Prizes are awarded in the jumbo tomato, big pumpkin, and 11 other vegetable categories. Giant animal classes include the boar, bull, pigeon, rabbit and ram. Also don't miss the Avenue of Breeds, located in the northwest corner of the Swine Barn, which features many different breeds of cattle, horses, chickens, sheep, and fish.


Otis, the Champion Big Boar at the 2013 fair, weighing in at 1,103 pounds.
Otis, the Champion Big Boar at the 2013 fair, weighing in at 1,103 pounds. | Source

Fair records

Class
Record
Year
Big boar
1,259 lbs
2008
Super bull
3,404 lbs
2009
Heaviest pigeon
2 lbs, 6 oz
2003
Largest rabbit
22 lbs, 5.5 oz
2012
Giant ram
507.5 lbs
2014
Judging a dairy cow class.
Judging a dairy cow class. | Source

Fair Dates

Year
Dates
2016
August 11-21
2017
August 10-20
2018
August 9-19
2019
August 8-18
2020
August 13-23

Fair hours

Grounds: 7 a.m. to 1 a.m.
Buildings: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Midway: 10 a.m. to Midnight

Admission

Adults: $11
Children 6-11: $5
Children 5 and under: free

Some discounts and packages are are available. Visit the Iowa State Fair website for more information and schedules.

Getting to the Iowa State Fairgrounds

A markerIowa State Fairgrounds -
Iowa State Fair, 3000 E Grand Ave, Des Moines, IA 50317, USA
[get directions]



How the Iowa State Fair made it to Hollywood

A look by Paul Berge and Iowa Public Television.


The Iowa State Fair in print and on-screen

More by this Author


Comments 43 comments

KDuBarry03 4 years ago

Oh wow, there's so much to do here! I have never heard of a butter cow until I read this. Outstanding! Voted up, sharing, and pinning :)


DeborahNeyens profile image

DeborahNeyens 4 years ago from Iowa Author

Thanks, Keith, for being the first to comment and for sharing. The butter cow is something else, for sure.


Grace D. profile image

Grace D. 4 years ago from Missouri

Wow, that is some great information. It really looks like fun. Great post.


DeborahNeyens profile image

DeborahNeyens 4 years ago from Iowa Author

Hi, Grace. It's always a fun time. Thanks for stopping by.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Lived in Iowa for 50 years and never went. Went last year and OD'ed on porkchops on sticks (although, if I recollect, the "stick" was the pork chop bone). If you've never had a REAL Iowa pork chop, you've never had a pork chop. Will be going this year. I'd like to also branch out into other foods-on-a-stick. Nice article, deborah!


Efficient Admin profile image

Efficient Admin 4 years ago from Charlotte, NC

Wow I love state fairs and this one looks like a real winner, like a lot of fun. The animals are awesome including the butter cow! Never seen a butter space man before either LOL! Voted up, interesting, awesome.


Arlene V. Poma 4 years ago

Deb, what did you do with your pumpkin after the state fair??? Did you save the seeds? Can you still make pumpkin dishes with it, or do you feed it to the livestock? I am curious orange because I have never been successful with regular pumpkins. Quite impressive, I must say! I love state fairs. I've only been to the one in California and Nevada. All I require is a corn dog and a chance to look at the livestock. Maybe a concert. Everything else is gravy!


randomcreative profile image

randomcreative 4 years ago from Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Awesome job covering the Iowa State Fair! Your pictures are great, and I love all of the facts that you've included about the state fair. I'm so glad that my husband and I got to go twice while we lived in Iowa. It definitely sets the bar for state fairs. I hope that this article will inspire others to get to the fair.


Pollyannalana profile image

Pollyannalana 4 years ago from US

Only been to Iowa once and it was beautiful, would love to go to the fair! Looks fantastic!


DeborahNeyens profile image

DeborahNeyens 4 years ago from Iowa Author

You are right, UnnamedHarald. The "stick" of the porkchop on a stick is the bone, which makes a nice handle. I usually get one, but my favorite is the hot beef sundae, which is in a bowl. I have to have one every year. I'm not even tempted to try the fried butter on a stick, which sounds just plain gross. Hope you enjoy yourself at the fair again this year. Thanks for the comment!


DeborahNeyens profile image

DeborahNeyens 4 years ago from Iowa Author

Efficient Admin, if you like state fairs, this is the place for you. I love the animals, too. The "Avenue of Breeds" is really cool, where you can see all the different breeds of cattle, sheep, chickens, etc. Thanks for the comment and the votes.


DeborahNeyens profile image

DeborahNeyens 4 years ago from Iowa Author

Hi Arlene. I'd love to claim that pumpkin as my own, but actually my cousin Steve grew it. He enter the giant pumpkin contest every year. He's given me some of the seeds, but we haven't figured out a spot in the garden where we have enough room for a 1,000 lb. pumpkin! My annual trip to the state fair is one of my favorite summer events. Only a couple of weeks away! Thanks for the comment; it's always great to hear from you.


DeborahNeyens profile image

DeborahNeyens 4 years ago from Iowa Author

Thanks, Rose. Glad you got to go when you were here. Have you been to the Wisconsin fair yet? I've heard that one is pretty good, too.


DeborahNeyens profile image

DeborahNeyens 4 years ago from Iowa Author

Hi Pollyannalana. I agree; Iowa is beautiful, in an understated way. We don't have mountains or oceans, but some of the rural landscapes are incredible. I hope you get a chance to return someday. Thanks for the comment.


BizVT34 profile image

BizVT34 4 years ago from USA

I've heard great things about the Iowa state fair, I need to get inspired and make my way there soon.


DeborahNeyens profile image

DeborahNeyens 4 years ago from Iowa Author

Absolutely, BuyaBiz! Thanks for reading and commenting.


aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

Sounds like loads of fun! Maybe I can go to Des Moines to attend the fair one day!


Movie Master profile image

Movie Master 4 years ago from United Kingdom

What a fabulous day out, with so much to do and see!

I can't believe the size of that bull!!

A fabulous hub thank you for sharing, voted up/awesome.

Best wishes Lesley


DeborahNeyens profile image

DeborahNeyens 4 years ago from Iowa Author

I hope you can make it, aviannovice. Thanks for the comment.


DeborahNeyens profile image

DeborahNeyens 4 years ago from Iowa Author

Hi, Lesley. The Super Bull is always a highlight. This one wasn't even a record-breaker. Thanks for the comment, votes, and share.


DeborahNeyens profile image

DeborahNeyens 4 years ago from Iowa Author

I will look for your article, VibrantViews. I'm sure the Ohio State Fair is almost as good. ; ) Thanks for reading and commenting.


one2get2no profile image

one2get2no 4 years ago from Olney

Great day out. Thanks for the hub and the information Vibrant Views.


DeborahNeyens profile image

DeborahNeyens 4 years ago from Iowa Author

Thanks for stopping by, one2get2no.


plongeaux profile image

plongeaux 4 years ago from Des Moines, Iowa

Fascinating piece! Will keep an eye out for companion sculptures from now on...Neil Armstrong!! Love it.


DeborahNeyens profile image

DeborahNeyens 4 years ago from Iowa Author

Paul, so happy to see you've signed up at Hubpages! I hope you plan to publish a few articles here and share your words of wisdom with all of us. Thanks for the comment. The companion sculptures can be so incredibly random sometimes. I'll be at the fair in a couple of weeks. Maybe we'll see you there!


tillsontitan profile image

tillsontitan 4 years ago from New York

Just about every state has it's fair...you did a great job of covering Iowa's! Your descriptions make one want to try the beef sundae and I must say that is one heck of a butter cow! Your pictures ar great. Wouldn't it be a trip to go to every state fair...one at a time of course ;)

Voted up, useful, awesome, and interesting.


DeborahNeyens profile image

DeborahNeyens 4 years ago from Iowa Author

Thanks, tillsontitan. I've never been to another state fair but I think going to them all sounds like a great idea!


billybuc profile image

billybuc 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

Linking this to my hub for tomorrow....great look at a great American tradition Deb.


DeborahNeyens profile image

DeborahNeyens 4 years ago from Iowa Author

Thanks, Bill. Can't wait to see your new hub!


nicomp profile image

nicomp 4 years ago from Ohio, USA

Had a great time at the Indiana State Fair last weekend.


DeborahNeyens profile image

DeborahNeyens 4 years ago from Iowa Author

Indiana is supposed to have a great state fair, too. Thanks for stopping by, nicomp.


Sunshine625 profile image

Sunshine625 4 years ago from Orlando, FL

Now this looks like one happening fair! I like the butter cow :) I bet you are going to enjoy some county music concerts also! Have fun :)


DeborahNeyens profile image

DeborahNeyens 4 years ago from Iowa Author

Thanks, Linda. One of my favorite things to do is watch the livestock judging. My husband and I discovered a few years ago that we have an uncanny ability to pick the winning cows every time, despite being the city (now suburban) folk we are. The fair is always a highlight of the summer, and it looks like tomorrow will be a beautiful day!


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 2 years ago from Houston, Texas

Thanks for giving those of us who will probably never be able to attend the Iowa State Fair a good flavor of it with your descriptions and photos. I can't imagine eating fried butter but the butter sculpture was truly something to see. :) Will pin this to my Iowa board and also share with my followers.


DeborahNeyens profile image

DeborahNeyens 2 years ago from Iowa Author

Thanks, Peggy. I hope you do get to attend someday. It truly is something to see.


Journey * profile image

Journey * 2 years ago from USA

This is definitely very interesting with great photos. Thanks for sharing. Voted up, useful and interesting.


DeborahNeyens profile image

DeborahNeyens 2 years ago from Iowa Author

Thanks for reading and commenting, Journey.


Shantell1027 profile image

Shantell1027 2 years ago

I love the Iowa state fair. You have some great pictures.


DeborahNeyens profile image

DeborahNeyens 2 years ago from Iowa Author

Thanks, Shantell. Did you make it to the fair this year?


Shantell1027 profile image

Shantell1027 2 years ago

I went the 14th. We had fun, but we didn't get to see all of it. I liked reading the facts about the past years at the fair.


DeborahNeyens profile image

DeborahNeyens 2 years ago from Iowa Author

We were there on the 15th. It was raining, but that didn't seem to keep the crowds away. I looked at your profile and see that you live in Iowa. It's always nice to meet another Iowan here. Welcome to Hubpages. I'm looking forward to reading your work.


Sunshine625 profile image

Sunshine625 2 years ago from Orlando, FL

I couldn't help but think of warm loaf bread when I saw the butter cow! :) That's a reasonable entrance fee for a state fair. I haven't eaten pork in quite a while, but now I'm in the mood for a pork chop. I'm glad you had a good time, regardless of the rain.


DeborahNeyens profile image

DeborahNeyens 2 years ago from Iowa Author

It's the other white meet, Linda. :) Thanks for reading, commenting and sharing. I love the state fair!

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